The Non-Doing Paradox

“The flavor and the sheer joy of non-doing are difficult for Americans to grasp because our culture places so much value on doing and on progress. Even our leisure tends to be busy and mindless. The joy of non-doing is that nothing else needs to happen for this moment to be complete. The wisdom in it, and the equanimity that comes out of it, lie in knowing that something else surely will.

“It reeks of paradox. The only way you can do anything of value is to have the effort come out of non-doing and to let go of caring whether it will be of use or not. Otherwise, self-involvement and greediness can sneak in and distort your relationship to the work, or the work itself, so that it is off in some way, biased, impure, and ultimately not completely satisfying, even if it is good.”

-Jon Kabat-Zinn
(Wherever You Go, There You Are, p.38-39)


One observation from Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton has stuck with me. He writes:

“More lawyers have come to me for therapy than have members of any other profession, and it’s not coincidence, since so much of their training is to learn to live by rules. One important rule they try to live by is that the proper way to be angry is to have a fight using the rules. They often try to do this in their private lives, with complete lack of success. Perpetual arguing to convince others of the rightness of your case doesn’t work worth a damn in personal relationships, and we all know it but can’t seem to stop.” (p.21)

I thought this was fascinating. You’d expect lawyers and the legal system to be a reasonable place to look for ideas about how to resolve conflicts. Indeed I have repeatedly done so in the past, in both home and work settings. But if I’m being honest, Blanton got it right — my attempts tended to fail miserably, leaving me confused and deflated.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that resolving conflicts has absolutely nothing to do with arguing a case. Quite the opposite, it is a creative process of collaboratively inventing new solutions that have the potential to meet everyone’s needs.

The courts are built on punishments, blame, winners, and losers. Conflict resolution is built on a search for opportunity and shared goals.

The two have essentially nothing in common except that they are both methods of dealing with a dispute.

I think it’s telling that our legal system evolved directly from the methods used by kings and patriarchs to issue decisions. We merely replaced the sovereign with a set of laws, interpreted by judges and juries. We the people hold the power to create the laws (at least in theory), but we remain subjects of those laws and juries, just as we used to be subjects of the king. If we do not follow the rules, we are judged and punished by an outside arbiter. The rule of law.

There are many reasons why this doesn’t work well anymore, at least in normal life. For one thing, we want to be free, autonomous adults — not subjects to an outside authority (not even one called “fairness” or “justice”). For another, the technique of punishment focuses our minds on fear, scarcity, and self-protection, all of which work against any quest for peace and reconciliation.

Of course, fighting it out in a courtroom is preferable to fighting it out on a battlefield. And trial by jury is certainly preferable to the whims of the monarch. But do we really need to be fighting at all?

Could we be using some of that energy instead on inventing new ways of living together and helping each other such that people feel less compelled to commit crimes in the future?

This is the direction known as restorative justice and it is clearly on to something.

Perhaps the spouses of lawyers have known it all along.


A friend was recently telling me about a frustrating encounter they had had with a relative.

“I was trying to have an open-minded discussion but it became clear that their political beliefs were simply whatever the NRA endorsed. How was I supposed to engage with that? It left no room for debate.”

I suspect a lot of people have found themselves in a situation similar to this. We’d like to be able to talk with people on the other side of the political spectrum but cannot seem to find a bridge. I tried to bring to mind what I’ve learned about nonviolent communication. What question could be asked that would invite connection rather than judgement and conflict? Something that would reflect our genuine curiosity? Something that would honor the fact that everyone is the expert of their own experience?

How about this:

“Why is the NRA so important to you?”